Thursday, June 19, 2014

Essay Day - “Realism and Character Study in Agnes Varda’s 'Cléo From 5 to 7'”

It’s Wednesday, which means it’s time for ‘Essay Day’ here at Fade to Lack. As explained here, I have written a large number of essays during my time at the University of Colorado as a student in film studies, and I thought it time to share the best of those with my readers, so throughout the summer, I’ll be posting a new essay every Wednesday, all focused on film in one form or another, but often incorporating other research and fields of study.

This week’s selection is a short piece on Agnes Varda’s 1962 film Cléo From 5 to 7, which is readily available on Hulu (via Criterion) and should be viewed by all, as it is a truly wonderful movie. Written for a course on ‘Film Criticism and Theory’ in the Summer of 2013, the assignment here was to provide a brief 1-page viewing response to the film. I went a little overboard, as you can probably tell, exploring issues of structuralism and realism within the film; it is a bit like a review, but with heavier emphasis on cinematic theory. In any case, I thought it turned out well, and am excited to share it as part of Essay Day. Enjoy...

Read “Realism and Character Study in Agnes Varda’s Cléo From 5 to 7” after the jump...

Agnès Varda’s Cléo From 5 to 7 strikes me as a remarkably accomplished character study, one that deftly and gradually instills in the viewer a connection with and understanding of the title character. It does this not through major actions or overt, obvious displays of character building, but by observing eponymous figure Cléo in a variety of mundane, ordinary situations over a real-time period of roughly 90 minutes, while she waits to learn whether or not she may have cancer. It is rather ingenious in its simplicity, for in its commitment to realist aesthetics and absolute space/time continuity, Cléo is shockingly evocative of real life, which of course does not include things like a plot or an antagonist. For the most part, life is defined by routine, by the mundane in which this film revels. Even on those occasions when we find ourselves in potential transition, as Cléo does here, we are defined by how we act and react within our everyday surroundings. Such adherence to the oft-ignored minutiae of existence is exactly what makes Varda’s film so impossibly rich in its evocation of a person’s interior and exterior lives.

Realism is a tricky idea to nail down in filmmaking, if achieving it is possible at all. There is a wide gap in film criticism, for instance, between theorists like Andre Bazin and Rudolph Arnheim. The former argued film should strive for realism, should deemphasize or stay away from techniques that heavily manipulate the imagery of real life and the perceptions of the viewer (such as Soviet Montage or German Expressionist style), while the latter explored the inherent lack of realism in all cinematic form, and how creating something that feels genuine to the viewer often requires a diversion from reality. I tend to side with Arnheim, having been known to declare that true ‘reality’ in film is an outright impossibility, and while Clèo From 5 to 7 does not necessarily do anything to challenge my deeper assertion that perceived ‘reality’ in film is merely a cinematic illusion (or stems from a filmmaker’s mastery of capturing emotions and emotional states in realistic or relatable ways, which is absolutely possible and actually quite common), it comes closer than most films I have seen to creating a deeply etched cinematic reality that feels palpably similar to modern human existence.

The film is constructed along the same lines of realism Bazin lays out, deemphasizing editing, plot, and image manipulations to present ‘life’ as clearly as possible. Varda makes frequent use of the long take, often with a deep and rich field of depth, so that we may observe Cléo in a variety of different settings and circumstances. The film’s best and most compelling long takes are those that take place on city streets in real environments – another tenant of realism – where we see Cléo move, in real time, from one encounter or location to another. These shots are positively vibrant with detail and vitality, and as the film goes along, and we gain an increasingly strong sense for Cléo’s character, it becomes increasingly fascinating to watch her move through the world without edits or other intrusions. In this way, the film also pertains to the realist trait of relating narrative through mise-en-scene and character actions or interactions, rather than montage editing. The film is built on clear and simple continuity editing, not montage-style juxtaposition, and in dealing heavily with issues of phenomenology – Cléo’s journey is all about interacting with the physical world, perceiving with her senses and experiencing various emotions like laughter, confusion, friendship, and even love – Cléo could also be called thematically realist.

The commitment to realism extends to the natural, amateur acting – leading lady Corinne Marchand had not starred in anything this significant before, the same holding true for much of the cast – and especially to the film’s real-time structure. One of the fundamental truths of cinema Arnheim highlights as contributing to the medium’s deviation from reality is the “absence of the space time continuum” (285). Whereas “in real life every experience or chain of experiences is enacted for every observer in an uninterrupted spatial and temporal sequence,” film allows for the continuity of time and space to be constantly broken and manipulated; a man looking at a house in one shot might be inside it in the next, without the intervening experience of travelling there being depicted (285). Even though most films conform to continuity editing – one shot or action logically follows the previous – cinema also, as a general rule, breaks the space time continuum regularly. It is such a basic idea of cinematic construction that most ignore this absence of ‘real’ continuity altogether, but for those who argue against the existence of true cinematic realism – like myself – this point is perhaps the most important to explaining why realism and cinema are inherently separate. 

Clèo From 5 to 7 escapes such arguments, however, by maintaining total continuity of space and time. Where most films naturally excise all stretches of time unimportant to the story, such as scenes of movement from one location to the next, Clèo embraces and exists within the in-between moments most narratives (cinematic or otherwise) choose to ignore. The film takes place over one 90-minute period (between, as the title suggests, 5 and 7 in the afternoon), split into twelve chapters that range in length from 3 to 15 minutes, and there are only two or three instances where time or space are in any way compressed (some of these may be the result of missing frames). A character’s movement from one location to the next is always dramatized, usually in long, quiet sequences of driving or walking (where we get many of the film’s aforementioned long takes), and conversations play out naturally, without interruption, until they reach a natural conclusion.

This real-time conceit results in two major effects. The first – which may only be applicable to someone mildly obsessive like myself – is that the film is imbued with certain qualities of structuralism. It is not in and of itself a structuralist film, of course, but if one of the goals of structuralism is to play a sort of mind-game with the audience, where actively deciphering the structure as one watches is key to finding meaning (the basis of Hollis Frampton’s work, for instance – his Zorns Lemma, which runs through the alphabet via real-world visuals, like street signs, over and over again, is a classic of structuralism), then Cléo certainly has some mild structural characteristics. The chapter distinctions not only periodically reinforce the film’s real-time nature, but in telling us how long the next segment of film will be, we anticipate how the passage of time will effect both the characters and our viewing experience. I personally found myself increasingly engaged with and interested in how time passed, in part because the film constantly provided these temporal markers. I wound up noting all the time/chapter delineations in my notes, and timing the segments with my wristwatch to confirm the film’s chronological continuity. The structure actively and increasingly enhanced the experience of watching.

This, in turn, leads to the second effect – that having the clock tick by in real and near-absolute continuity enhances both the film’s and the viewer’s focus on how the mundane simplicity of life builds and reveals character. As previously noted, it is the ‘absence of space time continuity’ that prevents most films from accurately reflecting day-to-day existence; we are bound by time, and therefore bound by events and circumstances that are inherently non-dramatic. Cléo, in many ways, is actively anti-dramatic. It has no real ‘plot’ to speak of – just observations of Cléo trying to distract herself on one particularly troubling day, usually in scenarios that would not, in most films, be of any dramatic interest.

Consider the long scene at the café, or in Cléo’s apartment during a singing lesson, or the encounter with kind and earnest Antoine at the park – all are examples of sequences that would be trimmed substantially, or excised altogether, were space/time continuity disregarded. Scenes of transportation would never even be considered. Yet they are all crucial to Cléo – indeed, they are the basic fabric of the film, for in watching Cléo live through these moments uninterrupted, the viewer fully conscious of the constant passage of time, we get a rather holistic understanding of the character. Even ignoring the arc of self-awareness she displays over the course of the film, going from vigorously distracting herself from her fears to confronting them head-on, individual scenes gradually inform our understanding of the character, because they are allowed to play out in full. “Everyone spoils me; no one loves me,” Cléo remarks near the start of her singing rehearsal, indicative of the vain, careless attitude she seems to display through much of the scene. Yet because we observe her in every moment of this sequence, catching all the little nuances that define her in several disparate, dynamic ways, by the time we arrive at her final line of the scene – “I thought everyone looked at me; I only look at myself” – we have a much fuller understanding of vanity and self-absorption as a dynamic and multi-layered characteristic, one that will be fleshed out even further in the scenes that follow.

This is but a simple and surface-level analysis, of course, as going any deeper with these issues would take substantially more space. It is nevertheless clear that by conforming to realism to such a chronologically extreme degree, and by displaying such a startlingly sharp eye for the mundane nuances of real life, Agnes Varda not only proves the possibility of a truly realistic dimension to cinema – one that has rarely, if ever, been surpassed in the half-century since the film’s release – but reveals a fresh and insightful way to examine character. Indeed, one of the core lessons of the film is that it is those very same nuances that define us, and that these reactive characteristics can be as fully illustrated and understood in 90 continuous minutes as they can in much longer surveys of time.

Works Cited

Arnheim, Rudolph. “Film and Reality.” Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and
Contemporary Readings. Ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 279-89. Print.

Bazin, Andre. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema.” Critical Visions in Film Theory:
Classic and Contemporary Readings. Ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. Print.

Read Previous ‘Essay Day’ Entries Here:

Jonathan R. Lack has been writing film and television criticism for ten years, for publications such as The Denver Post’s ‘YourHub’ and the entertainment website We Got This Covered, and is the host of The Weekly Stuff Podcast with Jonathan Lack and Sean Chapman. His first book – Fade to Lack: A Critic’s Journey Through the World of Modern Film is now available in Paperback and on Kindle.  Follow him on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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